Monday, 1 May 2017

Arctic Adventures in Lapland

Helsinki

Helsinki is probably the weirdest European capital I've ever visited. The first day we did Lonely Planet self-guided walking tour & ended up didn't really liking the city... However, having spent two more days on our way back from Lapland, we've gradually warmed up towards the city & learned to appreciate its rough Nordic charm & sometimes not-so-picturesque appearance. 

General tips & ticks:

    • Shuttle bus 615/620 - €5.30 - 45 min - from platform 21 to Rautatientori (next to Helsinki's train station) 
    • Finnair Bus (€6.60 - 30 min, every 20 min, trip is around 30 mins), they've got WiFi onboard
    • Train (probably the fastest & cheapest option - only €2.9 way to get to the airport) - arrives at the central train station.
    • Budget alternative to paying 30€ for the official hop-on hop-off bus tour is grabbing a FREE Sightseeing on Tram 2/3 Brochure & jumping on Tram 2 or Tram 3.

Things TO DO in Helsinki:

  • Tempoeliaukion Kirkko - last entrance at 16:45, 3€
  • Fortress island of Suomenlinna & Seurasaari (traditional wooden buildings), the Helsinki Harbor, take a ferry there. If you have a Helsinki card or just a day card for public transport (which, btw, also takes you TO or FROM airport), ferry will be included & you don't need to pay extra.
  • Brunssi (Finnish brunch) - usually timed between 10:30-15:30, brunssi is an extremely popular tradition in Helsinki, hence there's a variety of options to choose from: from classical dacades-old cafes (e.g. Cafe Ekberg (Bulevardi 9, 00120 Helsinki) or Karl Fazer Cafe) to all kinds of hipster places in districts like Kallio or Punavuori. Check out brunssipartio.fi for details on locations & types of brunches. We chose Cafe Ekberg (Bulevardi 9, 00120 Helsinki) just because it was so close to our AirBnB and on the way to the ferry that we were planning to take later. That cheesecake (see picture below) has been "haunting" me ever since, it's definitely in the TOP 3 of finest, most delicious cakes I've ever eaten in my life :-)
  • Have a cuppa coffee! It turns out that - weirdly enough - the Finns are the people with the highest consumption of coffee in the world (12kg per person per year)! Non-surprisingly, an array of places to have a cuppa (& it's at least good everywhere), but GOOD LIFE COFFEE ☕️ has been appraised in tourist magazines (during the time of our visit).
  • Eat a local pastry! On cold winter days a sugary kardamompulla (cardamom bun) or savoury rice-filled karjalanpiirakka (Karelian pirog pastry) are more of a necessity than a treat 😋☕️
 

  • And if all of the above isn't enough calories... try wonderful Fazer's chocolate - it's milk chocolate is pretty remarkable. You can do so at the originl Karl Fazer Café (Kluuvikatu 3, 00100 Helsinki) or pretty much in any supermarket in Helsinki ;-)
  • Design Museum - professional, high quality design fun. When we were there, an exhibition "100 objects from Finland" showcased a 100 items (one from each year of national Finland's independence), each touching upon country's important topics like climate, light, children, work, perseverance & happiness ... objects ranged from stereotypical reindeer collars to harnesses for toddlers & Alko shopping inspector's hats (1947) to post-war "Dive morning game" (1948), vacuum-cleaner-look-alike berry picker Marjuri (1994), Vuokko outfit for female pastor (1988), 14 Soviet super hits vinyl record (1984) to Sami skateboards (2012) all the way through to Nokia's Mikro Mikko (1981). Other floors of the museum gave a glimpse into the importance of providing mental well-being with the means of design & gave everyone some fun interactive examples of design, like, e.g. immersive patterns (colourful below).
  • Get yourself a souvenir at the moomin shop (or at the airport): I hate to say it, but it's cheaper & there's more choice at the airport than at the flagship store (where's fairness in this world!).
  • Do a photoshoot on the steps on the Helsinki cathedral.

Finnish character:

According to the newly released 2017 World 🌎 Happiness Report, the Finnish are ranked the 5th happiest country in the world, which is particularly remarkable when one thinks about how VERY cold it is here most of the year or browses through some of Finnish hilariously miserable traditional idioms, most of which belong to the "life sucks" category: 
1) pessimisti ei koskaan pety ("the pessimist will never be disappointed") 
2) itku pitsästa ilosta ("happiness will always end in tears") 
3) ei niin pahaa ettei jotain hyvääkin ("not so bad that there's nothing good in it")
Maybe the secret to staying happy is having low expectations? :-)
No matter how pessimistic, Finns are still surprisingly creative & weird, which manifests itself in all kinds of cute & weird ways like unicorn-street-plaques, butt-shaped seats on stairs for homeless people, giraffes waving with hoofs from balconies, Moomin's adventures & monuments to naked workers wielding iron, all of that - is a wonderfully weird part of Finnish history & art heritage that can be found on the streets & provides an unforgettable experience, no matter how discordant. 

Lapland

LAPLAND Lapland's vast spaces, pure air & big skies are enigmatic & lonely... This region occupies 30% of Finland's land area, but houses only 3% of its population. It's snowy wilderness attracted me to this region in the first place: it's been a dream of mine to experience a husky ride and feel like a rascal driving a snowmobile :-) To make the most of such a trip, it's important to pick the right time: there're periods in the year when there's no sun for 50 days or no night for 70... 
We chose April as it usually provides decent amount of snow, less extreme temperatures and even a (theoretical) chance of seeing Aurora Borealis. The Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) is often seen above the Arctic Circle (which includes a lot of Lapland), auroral storm appears in curtains of greenish-white (&/or shades of crimson-red glow towards the lower edge) light stretching East to West across the sky when charged particles (protons & electrons) from the Sun bombard the Earth and are deflected toward the North and South Poles. When particles hit the outer atmosphere (100-1000km above ground), charged electrons collide with molecules of nitrogen and oxygen, the excess energy from these collisions creates the colorful lights. The ancient inhabitants of Lapland had a much more mystical explanation: apparently, the breathtaking phenomenon is a consequence of a giant fox 🐺 swishing its tail above the Arctic tundra :-) 
Optimal conditions for viewing Aurora Borealis are during dark clear night with high auroral activity... and you're definitely better off during winter (April - or maybe even March - if one is being really strict - aren't exactly a "guaranteed hit" ...

Kakslauttanen

Prior to arrival, we read a lot of pretty terrible reviews & now, after after our stay, I'd like to be the first one to admit that a lot of it was very unfair (see pros & cons below).
Tip to choosing the best room: even if you're two people, get the 4-person igloo (those come with a with shower). The price difference is minimal, but you'll thank yourself for the comfort of being able to take a shower without having to go outside into the cold.
West village is more modern & all the main attractions are situated there, but bear in mind that the skiing tracks are in the East Village (but no worries: transfers are really easy & free, see notes below).
POSITIVES
1) Very friendly & helpful staff (all our requests were accommodated quickly & efficiently & with a nice smile)
2) Convenient logistics:
* generous breakfast is between 8:00-11:00, check-out is at 10:00 sharp, one can leave bags at the reception till transfer bus to the airport.
* Dinner can be scheduled for either at 18:00 or 20:00, depending on your preference & activities you're doing that night.
3) Not only breakfast, but also dinner is INCLUDED in the price of accommodation.
4) Wine, cocktails & other extras are priced very reasonably (e.g. abundant lunch is €22 pp, 12:00-15:00), wines per glass are between €5-6.
5) Pleasant surprise was that dry sauna was included in the price. Of course, if you'd like a private smoke sauna to be booked only for your party, then it would cost you around  €480 :-) But one can enjoy the sauna experience for free if you're not too hung up on smoke :)
6) Transfer between West & East villages is FREE - just tell the reception when you want to go & you'll have your own private driver drop you off.
7) You can use a sled to take your luggage (& your friends/family) to your igloo - it's quite fun, we used it as means of transportation around the resort also on other days, not just for the luggage.
8) There's a reindeer & husky farm on the premises - you can visit the animals during the day free of charge.
9) WiFi - another point that was criticized a lot in numerous reviews was limited WiFi coverage (only in the reception/restaurant area), but I'd like to offer a point of view that maybe it's a good thing. The point of an Arctic holiday is being close to nature & share some unique quality time with whomever you're travelling with, so even the fact that there IS WiFi in the wilderness feels like a huge bonus to me. Btw, mobile coverage is excellent in all the places we've been around the resort, so if you really think you want to waste your precious holiday time on sending work e-mails, you can do that :P

NEGATIVES
1) Keep in mind that seeing Aurora Borealis is (unfortunately) not guaranteed - if you come with this attitude, the whole experience will be fun even if that doesn't happen.
2) Airport transfer (€54 return per person!) isn't included in the price of accommodation, so it'd be a good idea to book it in advance. It also seems a bit unfair as in this remote area there're not so many options to get to your accommodation (it's not like you can hop a regular public transport bus), so the fact that the resort is making it your problem how to get there or giving you a quite expensive transfer that you HAVE to take, seem to be a bit "extortionist"...
3) Activities are quite pricey, e.g. Huski Safari (Aurora hunting with Husky (for 2 people), 2 hour shared sled was €344 & Snowmobile Safari (3 hour shared snowmobile Aurora hunting for 2 people) was €298)...
4) Restaurant food wouldn't get a Michelin-star, but it's very decent. Some of the bad reviews concerned food in specific, but I'd like to point out that it's good quality ingredients & - taking into account that you are in the middle of nowhere - it's definitely  more than fine.
5) The heating temperature in the igloo isn't adjustable, so during the day, when the sun is out, it gets above 40+ C* in the igloo (so beware if you have any food or drinks: your cheese is going to melt & your beer/wine - "boil").
6) There's no fridge in the room (which would have been very convenient - see point 5 above).

MUST-DOs:


  • Sauna - with a population of 5.5mln, Finland has 3mln saunas. Make sure you experience the wonder of running into the snow after a hot sauna session.
  • Huski Safari - we didn't "catch" Aurora, but steering a husky-driven sled though a forest at midnight under a full moon is probably one of the coolest things I've ever done in my life.
  • Snowmobile Safari - again, had we "caught" Aurora, it would have probably been different, but be prepared that snowmobiling is pretty cold, windy & driving through the woods for hours can seem a little bit repetitive... So, surprisingly to myself, that experience was a bit of a disappointment (again, keeping expectations lower would have probably resulted in more happiness :-) ), but still quite remarkable all-in-all.

  • Do nordic skiing - All ski tracks are in the East Village - see map above for more information. "Public" trails are free if you bring your own equipment or cost 20 euros per day if you rent equipment (skies, sticks, overalls, gloves, etc.). 
  • Visit Santa's house - it's cheesy & not too spectacular, but you can crash an elf's party there for free pretty much any day of the year, so... don't be shy to do so ;-)
  • Watch raindrops on the glass of your igloo after the rain just before sunset.

All in all, going to Finland & Lapland, in specific, is a really holiday that provides you with a chance to do so many unique things that are "endemic" to the region, which makes it very special, no matter if you are lucky enough to see Aurora Borealis. A highly recommendable trip (just make sure to bring thermo-clothing & have multiple layers as well as a very good travel companion - there's not so much entertainment in the Arctic wilderness, it's just the real you, the elements & quite wild (& sometimes unforgiving) nature ;-)

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Exploring British Countryside...

Since I've started spending quite a lot of time in London because of work, I decided to venture a little bit further outside of "The Big Smoke" and explore the British countryside. Here's an illustrated account of how it happened...

Bath, Sommerset  (21.Jan 2017)

I cannot imagine a better way to get to know Bath than the one we took: by joining the 2-hour Free Walking Tour (guided absolutely voluntarily by 'Mayor of Bath Honorary Guides', it starts in the Abbey Church Yard on Sun - Fri @ 10.30 & 14.00 and Sat at 10.30.) & is 2 hours of high-caliber intellectual and historic entertainment that one cannot help, but enjoy.
Here're some things I've learned during the tour:
  • 3 Rules of Palladian architecture: Proportion, Balance & Harmony in Bath. Well, check it out for yourself... Pulteney Bridge, The Royal Crescent... I kinda understand why the whole city has been proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site...
  • Georgian & Victorian periods were all about walks in Parks (hence the abundance thereof: Royal Victoria Park, Alexandra Park, Park of the Royal Crescent...): "You put finest silks, finest tights, finest wigs - and that's just men! :-)"
  • Back in the day, if you were poor & didn't have money to be properly buried, the parish to which you would belonged, would make the arrangements for you. Therefore, it was very important to establish the boundaries of these parishes, so these were engraved onto the building structures situated in those parishes. For example, on the picture below you see letters S M P = St. Michael's Parish; and S P P P = St. Peter's & St. Paul's Parish. I wonder, though, who'd take care of those who died in that corner apartment of the house in the picture? :-)
  • It seems that the Stuart & Georgian periods were pretty stinky times in the history of England: as our guide told us "Queen Anne (1665–1714) bathed once a year 'whether she need it or not' ". Because even the royals couldn't afford to be bathing much, rich people used make up to whiten faces (as opposed to the working folk who couldn't afford it and would become brown working in the fields) and then draw blue lines on the whitened chest to stress their "blue blood" origin.
  • Acorns on top of the Circus refer back to the myth of how Bath was founded, where the son (Bladud) of the king, who was sick with leprosy & was, therefore, exiled from within the city walls as a swine herder, accidentally discovered the healing powers of the local mud when his pigs (poor things who have previously contracted leprosy from him), wallowed around in the mud & were miraculously cured. Naturally, he happily returned to the city & became king after his father's death; consequently, he moved the "headquarters" to Bath (which is where the "bubbling mud" was).
  • The frieze of the King's Circus contains multiple alternating triglyphs & 525 pictorial emblems representing all kind of symbols (from masonic to nautical...). Apparently, each emblem is unique, but I suspect that no one had the time to actually check, so we'll just take their word for it :-)
  • It was also interesting to learn about a possible origin of a top dog/underdog expression: as it turns out, it comes from saw-pits where wooden planks were sawn by hand. In this process, two men did the job using a two-handed saw. The senior man took the top handle, standing on the wood above metal pegs that were holding the wood (these pegs were called "dogs"), and the junior man took the a much the more uncomfortable position underneath, in the saw-pit below (voila!).
Alo,  we were advised to - when in Bath - try (at least) 4 things:
Sally Lunn's Buns - have dinner with a "Bath Bun" at the famous Sally Lynn's House. Sally was a Hugenotte refugee, who arrived to Bath in 1680 & since then became known for inventing a special kind of soft-dough brioche that consequently became part of the Bath tradition of having Public Breakfasts & Afternoon Teas. Fun to try, but don't expect anything otherworldly: it's just a tasty bread :-)
Bath Water (at the Pumphouse or the Roman Baths)
"Bath Oliver" - a dietary cracker (albeit often eaten with cheese), which was invented by a British physician Dr. William Oliver - hence the name.
[vegetarians, skip this one] Bath chaps - usually made of the meat of a pig's cheek salt cured or pickled in brine, smoked, then boiled, and coated with golden-tan colored breadcrumbs & formed into a cone-like shape.

Upon finishing the tour & not being a vegetarian, I enjoyed a delicious pork & apple scotch egg (egg stuffed with pork sausage meat with apple onion & sage) inside the Bath's Indoor Guildhall Market (oldest shopping venue in the city) ON (quite literally) the famous 18th century's pillar "The Nail" (which gave origin to the phrase "Pay on the Nail" as this is where transaction of business and prompt payment in bargaining happened).
After this typically British historic/culinary feast, we went to THE must-see attraction of Bath: The Roman Baths. Calculate to spend at least 3 hours there - the FREE audio guide is excellent & will keep you entertained along the way throughout this wonder of Roman engineering skills.
One of the weirdest exhibits in the Roman Baths are the The "Roman Curse Tables". Curiously enough, it seems to have been a tradition in the Roman times - in case something was stolen from you - to write a message to the goddess Sulis Minerva personally, asking her to punish the wrongdoers. Sometimes people even paid professional scribblers, so that they'd put the complains "in the words that the goddess would understand". Complaints ranged from stolen caps, cloaks & Bath tunics, gloves, 6 silver coins & often contained elaborate lists of suspects (in order to help the goddess to identify the actual wrongdoer). All curses refer to small & not very valuable objects. Curiously enough, it's the "little people" who spent money to curse the thieves, not the rich ones...

Bristol (22.Jan 2017)

Spent the day strolling up & down the Wapping Wharf Harbourside in Bristol, visiting the SS Great Britain, tasting a bunch of whiskeys from tiny little bottles & eating amazing vegetarian pies from Lovett Pies. The Squash pie with plum chutney & truffled mushroom with Swiss chard pies were so good, I'm considering coming back to Bristol just for them!!!)
The shipyard & the SS Great Britain are very entertaining & it's definitely worth spending at least one or two hours. When she was launched in 1843, it was the biggest ship in the world. During her construction she was known as the Mammoth 🐘 ). This 170 year old ship has voyaged 32 times around the world via Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope, and covered almost one million ocean miles. It has called at more than 15 ports around the world, and been to some of the ocean's most turbulent seas.
Starting it's career with one of the most powerful engines in the world (1'000 horse powers), it seems to unfair to compare it to any engine of today (just for reference, A Rolls-Royce engine is 70'000 horse powers).
Dropping by a pretty church or St Mary Radcliffe on the way to the Temple Meads Train Station, finished the day in Bath having an Old-Fashioned & a Drunken Monkey 🐒 (Monkey Shoulder, Ancho Reyes, Lemon, Goldberg Ginger Ale with chocolate & grapefruit bitters, atomized with citric water) at THE HIDEOUT bar which slogan is very close to my life's motto: "ask questions, try new things & make friends" 😊 Coincidence?